Addiction to social media should be classed as a disease and tougher regulations are needed to protect children from firms operating in an “online Wild West”, MPs have said.
In a new report looking at the impact of social media on mental health, politicians say platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram should be regulated by Ofcom and forced to adhere to a statutory code of conduct.
And MPs also called for a new Social Media Health Alliance to be set up to review the “growing evidence” on the impact of social media on health and wellbeing, funded by a 0.5 per cent levy on the profits of social media companies.
The move to crack down on social media at Westminster comes just days after MSPs urged the Scottish Government to commission research on whether social media was linked to the “significant increase” in the numbers of children and teenagers suffering mental health problems.
Holyrood’s public audit committee said the research was “required as an essential element of preventive action and early intervention”.
Mental health referrals for children and young people have increased by 22 per cent over the past five years.
The latest report by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on social media and young people’s mental health and wellbeing says more needs to be done to tackle graphic online content, including suicide and self-harm.
It also says the government must publish advice for young people about time spent online and research should be carried out into whether the “addictive” nature of social media should be officially classed as a disease by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The WHO already lists gaming disorder, such as addiction to video games, as a disease.
And the APPG calls for the government to “establish a duty of care on all social media companies, with registered UK users aged 24 and under in the form of a statutory code of conduct, with Ofcom to act as regulator”.
The code, which would establish rules around social media and known harms to young people – such as self-harm, disordered eating, low-self-esteem, lack of sleep and over-dependence on social media – should be in place by the end of October, the group said. Labour MP Chris Elmore, chairman of the APPG, said: “I truly think our report is the wake-up call needed to ensure – finally – that meaningful action is taken to lessen the negative impact social media is having on young people’s mental health.
“For far too long social media companies have been allowed to operate in an online Wild West.
“And it is in this lawless landscape that our children currently work and play online. This cannot continue.”
The APPG said that while social media had the potential to positively impact young people’s lives, negative impacts include isolating mentally ill young people from accessing “real world” professional help, exposing them to online bullying and affecting self-esteem and body image.
Scotland’s mental health minister, Clare Haughey, has previously said that while “technology has the potential to be used in a hugely positive way”, there was a growing awareness “of the links between unhealthy social media use and poorer mental wellbeing in children and young people”.
Evidence submitted to the group showed girls were most at risk from suffering low self-esteem due to social media, but both sexes are impacted by long periods spent online.
Barnardo’s told MPs that while 12 per cent of children who spend no time on social networking websites have symptoms of mental ill-health, that figure rises to 27 per cent for those who are on the sites for three or more hours a day.
Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said: “The overarching finding is the need for social media companies to have in place a duty of care to protect vulnerable users and the need for regulation, which would provide much needed health and safety protection for what is a lawless digital playground.”
The APPG report warned the “publicising of self-harm methods” can lead to death.
In February, following the death of Molly Russell, 14, the head of Instagram said all graphic images of self-harm would be removed from the platform. Molly was found in her bedroom after taking her own life in November 2017. She was said to have shown “no obvious signs” of severe mental health issues. Her Instagram account was later found to contain distressing material about depression and suicide
In its evidence to the APPG, Facebook, which owns Instagram, also referenced a range of Instagram accounts that are “dedicated to specific mental health issues, as well as hashtags such as #edrecovery and #bodypositive”.
Both Facebook and Twitter have been approached for comment.
A government spokeswoman said: “The government will soon publish a White Paper, which will set out the responsibilities of online platforms, how these responsibilities should be met and what would happen if they are not.
“An internet regulator, statutory ‘duty of care’ on platforms and a levy on social media companies are all measures we are considering.”